Posts Tagged ‘Huckleberry Finn’

The n-word controversy: Mark Bauerlein wraps it up in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011
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Earlier today, a friend mentioned that Mark Twain once said something like, “The easiest way to be recognized as a leader is to find a parade and get in front of it.”  I can’t find the quote anywhere — but as Ken Kesey said, I’m sure it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.

And it’s especially fitting in a day the Book Haven achieved a brief flicker of fame via Mark Bauerlein in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blog here. He retraced our steps in the Huck Finn and the n-word kerfuffle — “as far as I know, the controversy began with a blog post by Cynthia Haven here” — and then follows the twists and turns through Sam Gwynn‘s concerns and Alan Gribben‘s explanations to conclude masterfully:

Haven’s selections are illuminating, for in Gribben’s and Gwynn’s explanations the whole problem crystallizes. When Gwynn puts the n-word in CAPS, he registers its force, which explains why he feels justified in deleting it.  This is, however, to give the term a moral meaning that it does not deserve. Yes, the n-word has moral meaning, but in the classroom it should be circumscribed by its historical existence. To grant it so much power today, at this moment, is to be captive to the power it possessed in 1884 and in 1950.

Likewise, when Gribben terms the n-word ”now-indefensible,” he assumes a moral stance toward it that is misdirected. No teacher should approach the language in a book written more than 100 years ago as in a condition of defensible or indefensible. Assigning a work is not the same thing as endorsing it. It is to hold the work up to analysis.  Furthermore, one of the lessons of the assignment should be to recognize that one can analyze something that one deplores. Simply deploring it is not enough, we should tell our students. The deletion of the n-word in the novel does the opposite, teaching students to consult their sensitivities more than their intellects.  Thanks, Cynthia, for bringing the action into the light.

And thank you, Mark, for framing the history so succinctly and the issues so thoughtfully.  We now return to our accustomed obscurity.

The n-word: Michiko Kakutani has spoken.

Saturday, January 8th, 2011
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She has spoken.

Michiko Kakutani adds her two cents on the n-word debate in the New York Times today:

Mr. Gribben’s effort to update Huckleberry Finn (published in an edition with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by NewSouth Books), like Mr. Foley’s assertion that it’s an old book and “we’re ready for new,” ratifies the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals. It’s like the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.

Radford's mini-bowdlerization

Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books — the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter as they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned. …

Michael Radford’s 2004 film version of “The Merchant of Venice” (starring Al Pacino) revised the play to elide potentially offensive material, serving up a nicer, more sympathetic Shylock and blunting tough questions about anti-Semitism. More absurdly, a British theater company in 2002 changed the title of its production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to “The Bellringer of Notre Dame.” … According to Noel Perrin’s 1969 book, “Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America,” Victorians explained their distaste for the colorful, earthy works of 18th-century writers like Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding by invoking the principle of “moral progress” and their own ethical superiority: “People in the 18th century, and earlier, didn’t take offense at coarse passages, because they were coarse themselves.”

Mark Athitakis, Mark Bauerlein, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Francine Prose, et al. on Huck Finn and the n-word — where to begin?

Friday, January 7th, 2011
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So much new news on the n-word firestorm, it’s hard to know where to begin.

First of all, NewSouth has published excerpts of Alan Gribbens‘s introduction to the new “n-less” edition of Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry FinnMark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes attacks the new introduction as gutless here.

Over at Books Inq., Chris Matarazzo of the Hats and Rabbits blog comments:  “The ‘visible sense of relief” the editor ‘sensed’ during lectures as a result of his having substituted in the word ‘slave’ is seen by him as an indication that the substitution was a good idea. I would argue that it better indicates that it was a bad idea.”

On Wednesday, the New York Times ran a spread on the controversy, with 11 opinions.

Douglass: Not a wimp by a longshot

Among them, Mark Bauerlein began with a classroom anecdote while he was teaching Frederick Douglass‘s autobiographical works.  One student was offended, and dropped the class.

What would Douglass think of a man who closed his book because of that word? “I’ve been torn from my mother, beaten regularly, and I’ve witnessed rape and murder,” he might say. “You can’t take the ordinary label of the day?”

Most of all, Douglass understood that dignity can endure even at the bottom of a slave society no matter the abuse. Twain did, too, showing that in spite of all the cruelty and the racial epithets, Jim remains the noble figure in the novel. Take away the insult and we lose the full measure of his character.

Worse, Alan Gribben’s hesitation over the the epithet has a terrible effect, producing the anti-intellectual attitude of many students. “I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’” Gribben has said.

Stop being so fussy. Political correctness is bad tutelage, validating thin skins and selective inquiries. The more students read sanitized materials in high school, the more they enter college inclined to dispel things they don’t want to hear.

Facebook keeps urging me to “friend” Francine Prose but when I try, I get standardized rejections that she has too many friend requests already — so I’m glad to see with all that socializing that she has time to think about Huck. She  has a different concern:  “… what puzzles me most about the debate — I’m not trying to sound willfully naïve — is why the word “nigger” should be more freighted, more troubling, the cause of more (to paraphrase the edition’s introduction) ‘resentment’ than the word ‘slave.’ Racial epithets are inarguably disgusting, but not nearly so disgusting as an institution that treats human beings as property to be beaten, bought and sold. ‘Nigger’ and ‘slave’ are not synonyms by any stretch of the imagination. Jim’s problem is not that he is called a ‘nigger’ but that he is chattel who can be freed or returned to his master.”  She concludes:

Knowing the history of censorship in our libraries, knowing how often Huck Finn has been removed from a school’s curriculum because of the word “nigger,” I’m almost inclined to say that if it takes censorship to insure that the book is still widely read, it might not be the worst thing. Let students experience Huck’s consciousness and discover the cruel realities that his culture took for granted. After that they may be inspired to read what Mark Twain actually wrote.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin is inevitably included in the roundup, and uses “Papp Finn’s rant,” which she quotes in full, n-word and all, to make her point:

Racism is ugly. The history and legacies of American racism are our nation’s own peculiar brand of ugly — and the n-word embodies it.

To understand how racism works in America it is necessary to understand how this word has been used to inflict pain on black people, challenge their humanity, and undercut their achievements. Leading black writers in America from Frederick Douglass to Ralph Ellison have understood this: to criticize racism effectively you have to make your reader hear how racists sound in all their offensive ugliness. …

It is the persistence of racism in America that makes the n-word in Huck Finn a problem in the classroom. We need to give teachers the tools they need to teach Twain’s book in the context of the history of racism in this country that is its central concern.

Over at Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes, Mark concludes:

Unquestionably, Twain’s text presents a serious problem for teachers: Cynthia Haven, who first brought word of the NewSouth book, has heard from professors sharing their reservations about discussing the book. But the book doesn’t fix the problem so much as it identifies a market niche: People who think that this book will fix the problem. Twain might have appreciated this kind of ruckus: When he learned that the Concord Public Library had banned Huckleberry Finn from its shelves shortly after the novel was published in 1885, he wrote, “That will sell 25,000 copies, sure.” But would he have any patience for the sanctimony surrounding this version of book—the very sanctimony Huckleberry Finn skewers?

“New Huckleberry Finn Edited for Language” at The Onion here.

And Sharon Heinz sent us this:

The beginning and the end: Fishkin’s revamped editorial on the n-word and Huck Finn

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
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Twain

The latest round of the n-word controversy started with NYC Councilman Charles Barron’s suggestion that Huckleberry Finn be banned from schools, as we discussed in our Dec. 30 report about Shelley Fisher Fishkin‘s editorial in the New York Daily News on that topic.  Perhaps it will end, now, with Shelley’s revamped editorial, reconfigured to discuss the the publication of Alan Gribben‘s edition of Huckleberry Finn with NewSouth.  The link is published on the Daily News‘ homepage today.

An excerpt from “Take the n-word out of ‘Huck Finn’? It’s an insult to Mark Twain – and to American history“:

Fishkin (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Sanitizing the language which aided and abetted white America’s denial of the humanity of black Americans from the nation’s founding doesn’t change that history. It papers it over and allows us to dodge its rawness.

Facing that history in all its offensiveness is crucial to understanding it and transcending it, and literature is uniquely positioned to help us do that. …

For to expose a racist society for what it is, you have to show racists as they are, speaking as they would speak.”

Perhaps the controversy will end now.  But don’t hold your breath.

Postscript: Just got an interesting p.o.v. from Jeff Sypeck:

You know, if I were a publisher looking to defend this new, n-free version of Huck Finn, I’d send a couple of enterprising interns to the library, and to Google, to research and catalog the history of adaptations of the novel. I suspect there’s a long history of retellings–comic books, kids’ books, cartoons, etc.–that sanitize the language in much the same way. The publisher might at least have been ready to argue from precedent.

Sypeck

That said, I was pleased to find a 1985 interview with (the great) Roger Miller about his musical adaptation, Big River, and the necessary use of That Word. “I hate to even say it, it’s so far from my spirit,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “but we have to use it because it’s in the novel. Huck is a young boy who, being a kid, doesn’t have all those prejudiced feelings and, being a kid, he hears the grown-ups say all this stuff that he hasn’t grown into yet. So the book shows the innocence of youth and the wisdom of the black man, and it makes for a great friendship. They become like two fiddles that play together. I never got a chance to write about things like that in my music business.”

Interestingly, when Big River was staged in Utah earlier this year, the producers got permission to eliminate half of the uses of That Word, but they were proud enough of keeping the other half in the script that the director could say, “You don’t make apologies for it”!

Huckleberry Fi (n’s removed) — continued

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
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Actually, this headline came from Brandwine Books here, but we liked and so we stole it.  Commenting on the Entertainment Weekly article (not our first article which we posted on Dec. 31 here) about Alan Gribben‘s forthcoming NewSouth edition of Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn, Mr. Brandywine  notes:

Every instance of the ‘n’ word (you know the word I mean) has been changed to ‘slave.’ And every instance of ‘Injun’ has been changed to… something. They don’t say what.

‘Is this really a big deal?’ the columnist asks.

Yeah, I kind of think it is.  …

My opinion (I could, of course, be wrong), is that if a student is old enough to understand the extremely sophisticated themes of Huckleberry Finn, he or she is old enough to understand that the “n” word, while always offensive, was in very common use in Mark Twain’s time, even by black people themselves. I think that’s a fact worth knowing. Educational, even.

‘Ah ha!’ says someone. ‘But you’re saying “n word” yourself! You’re a hypocrite!’

‘Silence, Imaginary Interlocutor!’ say I (I might as well. Anthony Sacramone isn’t using the phrase much these days [I just tried to link to his dormant blog, but now it won't let you in without a Google account]). The truth of the age I live in is that the ‘n’ word is no longer in common use, except as an insult (and in rap lyrics). If I tried to use it in Mark Twain’s way, I’d be as false to my own world as it’s false to his to clean it up in Huckleberry Finn.

I hold (again, I could be wrong) that when it comes to speech, the Victorians were able to express themselves with far greater freedom than we enjoy today.”

I’m not so sure.  Didn’t the Victorians find it to risqué to mention piano legs, and isn’t that why they put those silly little doilies on them?  Be that as it may, I think the 19th century has taken a bum wrap for prudery, which was heavily localized in the upper middle classes.  The lower classes recruited for the workhouses and brothels knew little about it.

Among the blog’s commenters is “Phil,” who says:  “This is ridiculous, and I hope the book does not sell.”

Not a chance, sport.  I have only two words to say to Phil:  Textbook Sales.

The New York Times weighed in yesterday, contributing this to the discussion:

“I’m not offended by anything in ‘Huck Finn,’ ” said Elizabeth Absher, an English teacher at South Mountain High School in Arizona. “I am a big fan of Mark Twain, and I hear a lot worse in the hallway in front of my class.”

Ms. Absher teaches Twain short stories and makes “Huck Finn” available but does not teach it because it is too long — not because of the language.

“I think authors’ language should be left alone,” she said. “If it’s too offensive, it doesn’t belong in school, but if it expresses the way people felt about race or slavery in the context of their time, that’s something I’d talk about in teaching it.”

Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway notes that “it’s fairly obvious that Twain is condemning racial prejudice and that one of the central themes of the book is the process by which Huck discovers that the things he’d been taught by society by blacks were wrong, and that his companion him was, in fact, an heroic figure. Twain’s use of a word that, even in his time, was meant to be insulting and demeaning, was deliberate and removing it because of ‘sensitivities’ seems to me to detract significantly from the overall power of the novel.”

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones reads this and comes up with a different conclusion:

But the problem with Huckleberry Finn is that, like it or not, most high school teachers only have two choices these days: teach a bowdlerized version or don’t teach it at all. It’s simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly. As Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who led the bowdlerization effort, explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”

Given that choice, I guess I’d bowdlerize.

First the Book Haven — then the world. The Huck Finn “n-word” ignites the nation.

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011
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A classic: "a book which people praise and don't read."

Well, well, well.  We don’t like to brag … not much, anyway … but the whole world seems to have picked up on the Huck Finn and the n-word story, which started here a few day ago, thanks to a reader tip.  (If you find a story prior to our Dec. 31 post, let us know. We’re curious.)  Another case of the power of the blog, even a relatively obscure one.  We’re not Huffington Post, after all.

We started it, Books Inq picked it up Jan. 2, Bookshelves of Doom carried it later in the same day … then Publisher’s Weekly ran a story yesterday, the Entertainment Weekly published an article here, which was deluged with over 1,000 comments.

Unsurprisingly, EW writes:

Unsurprisingly, there are already those who are yelling “Censorship!” as well as others with thesauruses yelling “Bowdlerization!” and “Comstockery!”

Actually, we used the word “Bowdlerization,” and think people are smart enough to know the origins of the word and the 19th century editor Thomas Bowdler who made Shakespeare “respectable” for the fainting couch crowd.

EW continues:

The original product is changed for the benefit of those who, for one reason or another, are not mature enough to handle it, but as long as it doesn’t affect the original, is there a problem?

Frank Wilson at Books Inq exploded at that one in a post titled “Dumb Reaction“:   “Well, the point is that it does affect the original. Something else from Wittgenstein: ‘One age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all others in its own nasty way.’”

CNN picked up the EW story — and from there, the world.  From CNN:

Quote of the day: “What’s next? We take out the sexual innuendo from Shakespeare? Or make Lenny Small “normal”? How about cut all the violence out of Clockwork Orange? ” –AA

A pretty close paraphrase of what we said.

A couple more comments:

jujube said, “So it’s a children’s edition of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ Adults can and should still read the original. I don’t get the outrage.”

Bobby said, “So we take the ‘n’ word out of Huck Finn, but all of these rappers and hip hop stars still say it every other word, and that’s fine?”

Publishers Weekly actually went so far as to write the n-word, which occurs in Twain’s book 219 times.  It also noted that Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” This one may be different.  Its article also notes that the new edition dispenses with the “in-word” — that is to say, “Injun.”

Dr. Gribben recognizes that he’s putting his reputation at stake as a Twain scholar,” said [NewSouth cofounder Suzanne] La Rosa. “But he’s so compassionate, and so believes in the value of teaching Twain, that he’s committed to this major departure. I almost don’t want to acknowledge this, but it feels like he’s saving the books. His willingness to take this chance—I was very touched.”

We posted a reply from NewSouth this morning as a postscript on our original post.

By the way, Garrison Keillor wrote a reaction to the newly published Autobiography of Mark Twain in the New York Times a few weeks ago here: “Samuel L. Clemens was a cheerful promoter of himself, and even after he’d retired from the lecture circuit, the old man liked to dress up as Mark Twain…”  Spoiler:  He didn’t like it much.

But wait! It gets better! More on Huck Finn and the n-word.

Friday, December 31st, 2010
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Voilà!

Yesterday, I wrote about the latest flap over Mark Twain‘s use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn. NYC Councilman Charles Barron apparently thinks the book should be banned:  “I find it interesting that Huckleberry Finn is a classic when it says [the n-word] 200 times,” he said.

Barron is not alone in his reservations.  Poet and professor Sam Gwynn made this comment on yesterday’s post:

Gwynn...a p.o.v. to be reckoned with

“Frankly, I just can’t teach it any longer. I know it’s great, and I can lecture for a day or so about how Twain is being faithful to the dialects and to the way that people spoke back then. But trying to lecture about its literary merits takes a back seat when I see how African American students (I’m talking about teenage sophomores, taking the class for core credit) are reacting to the iterations of THAT WORD. The problem is that Twain doesn’t distinguish between those who are using the word in a “kindly” manner (we could probably assume that this is the only word for black people that Huck has ever heard) and those who are using it an an epithet. Used indiscriminately in these ways, it just makes everyone in a classroom uncomfortable. Maybe if I were a better (or younger) teacher I could use this book to challenge all kinds of assumptions about language and art. I just don’t find myself up to the fight anymore, at least at the sophomore level. I think this is a pretty good 2/3 of a novel, but I really wonder why it has become canonized as the GAN.”  [That's the Great American Novel for the uninitiated.]

Gribben's got the answer?

Now, here’s the news flash:  A constant reader tipped me off that Barron’s problem is about to be solved by NewSouth books!  Dr. Alan Gribben is publishing a new edition that, among other innovations, dispenses with the n-word altogether.

Gribben explains that Twain’s novels “can be enjoyed deeply and authentically without those continual encounters with hundreds of now-indefensible racial slurs.” It is the first volume to wash out Twain’s mouth with soap.  Gribben believes that the presence of the n-word has gradually diminished the readership of Twain’s masterpiece.

Gribben said that another radical departure from standard editions is that these will be published as the continuous narrative that he says the author originally envisioned. “People during that time did not think of him as a fiction writer,” the Twain scholar told The Montgomery Advertiser. “Twain had difficulty at times developing plot lines for his novels and much preferred his travel books.”

But dumping the n-word is clearly the controversy that will boost sales.

Original as rough draft for translator

I think he’s on to something.  As a woman, I have always had issues about the ending of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. You know, the bit where Kate kneels down and blathers on about being her husband’s slave.  Surely one of our modern-day blank verse wizards could crank out something a little less offensive?  For that matter, I would like to see the b-word, the c-word, and the w-word eliminated from our public discourse about females running for office.

And there’s way, way too much violence in the Bible.  Lots of foreskins gathered, a number of rapes (including one gang rape), massacres on a regular basis. Think of all those psalms that begin with rivers or vineyards and end with a wish that someone’s brains be dashed out against a wall.  These nasty bits could do with a serious editing and revision … whoops!  Stephen Mitchell already has.

Seriously, though.  Sam Gwynn’s objections to the book are not to be taken lightly — Sam is a smart guy.  But the Bowdlerization of Twain concerns me.

The new Twain will be out in February.  Can we wait?

Postscript on 1/4:  NewSouth books replies in the comments section below:

Cynthia and Sam, thank you both for your thought-provoking comments about this. The best thing NewSouth’s edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn could do is generate more discussion about race, language, and literature, and we were pleased to read your post.

Again, we’ll note that the inspiration for this volume of Twain’s books came from Dr. Gribben’s actual conversations with teachers, uncomfortable with or in some cases restricted from teaching especially Huckleberry Finn because of the language within. We see our edition as a teaching tool with numerous applications, from the teacher who wants to teach Twain’s works without getting into the language controversy, to a teacher who wants to teach the NewSouth edition side-by-side with another edition to specifically discuss controversial language and responses to the two works. Before this edition, that wouldn’t have been possible.

The publisher promises to post the introduction to the book on its website soon.

Postscript on 1/5:  Hey, we started a fire with this one!  First the Book Haven, then the world: check it out here.

Dick Gregory, Charles Barron, Huck Finn, and the n-word

Thursday, December 30th, 2010
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Wants to ban Twain?

Mark Twain was “so far ahead of his time he shouldn’t even be talked about on the same day as other people,” according to comedian and author Dick Gregory.

His friend, Charles Barron, apparently doesn’t agree.  The New York City Councilman and former Black Panther took offense at a Brooklyn principal’s attempt to stop a volume of sexually explicit poems written by Barron’s goddaughter, Tylibah Washington, from being distributed at school.  “I find it interesting that Huckleberry Finn is a classic when it says [the n-word] 200 times. Tylibah’s book is the opposite. It’s very inspiring. I’d like to see Huckleberry Finn banned.”

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, writing in today’s New York Daily News, defended Huck, and she packs a heavy punch [an updated version of the editorial accommodates the latest n-word flap: it's here -- ED.]

“Barron claims to have entered politics to fight bigotry and to protest the sidelining of black voices in the cultural conversation. It’s ironic, therefore, that the principle he’s invoking to ban Mark Twain’s anti-racist classic — that books filled with the n-word shouldn’t be taught – would also ban from the nation’s classrooms many of the greatest and most inspiring works by black writers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Naughty poet?

The n-word is key to critiques of racism found in nonfiction from Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative,” to W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, to Richard Wright’s Black Boy, to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, to The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

It is just as central to critiques of racism in Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s classic story, ‘The Ingrate,’ and Countee Cullen‘s poem ‘Incident,’ not to mention novels including Richard Wright‘s Native Son, Ralph Ellison‘s Invisible Man, David Bradley‘s Chaneysville Incident, Ernest Gaines‘s A Lesson Before Dying - and, yes, Twain’s Huck Finn.

For to expose a racist society for what it is, you have to show racists as they are, speaking as they would speak.

The gifted black satirist and sportswriter, the late Ralph Wiley, who claimed Twain as his most important teacher, wrote that ‘there is not one use of [the n-word] in Huck Finn that I consider inauthentic, and I am hard to please that way.’”

She also notes the writers inspired by Twain, including Kenzaburo Oe, Japan’s Nobel Laureate.  David Bradley, who won the Pen/Faulkner prize for The Chaneysville Incident, credits Twain with having inspired him to become a writer in the first place, says Fishkin.

And of course she mentions Dick Gregory, who we wrote about here commenting on his best-selling autobiography Nigger (excerpt from Gregory’s essay in Fishkin’s new book, The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works):

“People were afraid to ask for my book, and bookstore owners were afraid to put it in their stores.  Some Black folks would go into a bookstore and say, ‘I want one of Dick Gregory’s what-you-call-it.’  They just couldn’t say the word. And White folks would say, ‘You named that book a title I just can’t say.’ Or they would complain, saying, ‘I just can’t stand the name of your new book.’ I didn’t hear White folks complaining about the word nigger when I was growing up.  I only heard them using it.  If they had complained about the word nigger in the past, there would not have been a need to name my book Nigger. Titling my book Nigger meant I was taking it back from White folks.  Mark Twain threw it up in the air and I grabbed it.”

Quite a wrap-up for the Year of Twain.

Postscript: Just got a note from Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence:

I just read your Twain post. Well done. I visited Hannibal, Mo., Twain’s home from the age of four, in the summer of 1990. The street ends at the Mississippi River. At the foot of the street, which was a boat landing stood one of those cast-iron historical markers on a post with all the expected stuff about Twain and Huck, etc. Mentioned on the marker was “[ ] Jim.” The brackets represent, obviously, “Nigger,” but a piece of steel plate had been welded over the word. Every literate person who looked that sign saw the offending word, in effect, underlined, italicized and written in boldface. Its censoring screamed it out louder than six letters ever could.

By the way, I spent a day with Dick Gregory, around 1984. I was a reporter in Richmond, Ind., the home of Earlham College where he was speaking. I had a ball with him. He was strident about vegetarianism and so forth but I remember him, during a lecture, sticking his hand in a bag of barbecue potato chips, getting it all greasy and red, and saying, “Look at this shit. What is this shit?” A naturally funny guy.

Some of us over at the Book Haven are rather strident about vegetarianism ourselves…